peter nesteruk (home page: contents and index)




Chinese Gardens I (Spring in the Gardens of Beijing/Tradition & Contemplation).




The Chinese garden; combining restrained formality with intimacy. Paths that wind slowly like an old clock; the double helix of human design and nature intertwined. Like the dragons and clouds motif along the temple steps. Or willows falling into water; the green border of an artificial lake. The shaded path parts; wooden steps lead upwards. The steps that wind up the temple hill... the path that leads through the sacred grove... transfigured by the magical presence of spring blossoms, almost a religion in themselves, like a seasonal shrine, a site of contemplation. What could be further from the gates of the palace, the corridors of power?


Sighing in the branches of the willows; fallen like the red leaves of autumn; the eternal reminder of loss and misfortune. The spirit of tragedy is the ghost of power.


The omnipresence of the temple, shrine, or similar forms in the Chinese park or garden mean that any act of contemplation, be it of the wind on the waters of an ornamental lake, spring blossom floating in the air around a wooden pavilion, or the colour of autumn leaves in a stone courtyard, finds that its sacred lining may not only lead to the pursuance of pious thought, to contemplation in the abstract, but may also lead to the contemplation of religion at large to its place and role in society. And so the contemplation of temporal power. Such is the proximity of religion and politics. What path is then chosen is due to the power of contemplation.


Clustered on the swerve of the temple roof; regimented, watching; immortals and dragons. Palace and temple share the same pointed roof, the same ornamentation, the same solar symbolism. The contemplation of power...


All forms of power have long been centralised as Religion and the State have, in effect, fused at their upper reaches (an often uneasy amalgam of Court, aristocracy, State bureaucracy, and religious hierarchies). Although not constituting State religion as such (this role was played by the ritual aspect of Confucianism, the religion of the State bureaucracy) Buddhism and Daoism have both benefited from State patronage. Thus, while the favourite religion of the ruling elites may have changed (with a concomitant persecution of different religions at different times), State-sponsored religions have been the defacto norm throughout Chinese history - with others either not permitted or barely tolerated. This situation remains true of China from the earliest days through to the Imperial period and even true of the toleration of the early Communist period (though not of the period known as the Cultural Revolution). Will the introduction of capitalism induce a new pluralism, a new and broader decoupling of religion and the state - allowing, for example, new freedoms to Christianity, or will new religious variants be frowned upon as contrary to social cohesion? Much depends upon the attitude of the religion in question (the recent challenge, or demand for recognition, by the Falun Gong religious sect may be read as a case in point - without the challenge posed to the State they would probably have been tolerated in a similar manner to previous religious groupings). Despite differences between the current State and religious ideologies and traditions, there is still a defacto union of private and public, of civil society and the State, regarding belief and the practices associated with it - a union which operates on the physical plane also in the (Hutong) areas where much of life is still lived communally (toilets, washing, eating, sitting out, etc). The personal is therefore political; even if the political has no expression outside of the personal. If there appears to be no outside, then we must look inside for such an expression. To the world of inner contemplation. When belief coalesces into a personal vision, an intimate credo, it must remain private, an affair of personal meditation. Or if it crystallises through the activity of charismatic types into a sect, then it must quickly make a bid to become a recognised religion, successful only if sanctified by secular powers, by the State (this is the history of all established religions in China: Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism in all its variants, Islam and Communism).


The traditions of religion (and behind them, their long history of alliance with the State) are, in this way, never far from the aesthetics of the Chinese Garden. Millennia of tradition, found still residing in the poetry and through poetry in the language, accompany the appreciation of the plants, layout and buildings found in the Chinese Garden. A personal awareness of the insistence of these traditions may offer an equally personal option on how they may be reincorporated into everyday life.


The power of contemplation... the slow, silent seepage of the ideal; water in limestone caverns; refusing to be bound to the limitations of the present (or to those of the past). The contemplated ideal is the spring of the future.


The bench by the lake, the view over the waters to the temple. The ascending path, the sheltered grove. The garden as a site of quiet reflection, a site of questioning. The converse and individual appropriation of the Chinese garden as an implicit site of state recognition, a site of state religion, with contemplation reduced to one more ritual of belonging. An appropriation of the mythical, the metaphysical, which, by a slight shift in emphasis, allows the production the ethical and political. As if calling upon a yet higher power for the answer to the perennial question; how to order ones life (in times such as these)? Questions asked silently in a Chinese garden.


Contemplation as a ritual of resistance... the quietest thoughts are the most heretical.


Contemplation as the site of an on-going negotiation, a testing-out of the threads stretching between individual and State. Side by side with (or by means of) the debate between the, not too distant, realms of Temple and State. A negotiation which also concerns the terms of co-implication of an individual and their community. A private balancing-out of the public and its rights; a personal reassessment of the balance of law and Law (of the demands of the secular and the sacred).


Reflection on the limits of the possible. The reflection of the temple or the undulation of the tree line in the still waters of the temple pool; an inverted horizon, the mirror landscape of the vertical, the reflection of an ideal. An imaginary horizon; a preferred state of life.


Making the best of 'interesting times'. No utopia (the disasters of the last one are still contributing to the crisis of the present). Only the afterlife, with freedom from a return: a return to Heaven, to Nirvana. Otherwise love's work of amelioration; and a prayer of hope for one's family and friends.

Temples rise up from the green sea of the gardens. At scenic points, at the ends of views, set in favoured landscapes, they resemble in their placing, as in their use of the triangular roof-form and the symbols they place upon it, the Greek temple with its pediment and portico (this observation holds true for each of the three main religions, whose temples share the same basic form, many of whose features are shared by the palace). Even in the repose suggested by the sloping eaves, a vertical pointer piercing the horizon, they seem, at first, to occupy space rather in the manner of Western follies, transported from another time and place, or in the manner of ruins. Yet these are not ruins, nor cultural anachronisms, nor imported exoticisms; rather they are aspects of a living tradition, present for contemplation and worship. The temple in the landscape is the fastener of belief.


In the contemplation of ruins, Western criticism, Western poets (and in the contemplation of ruins we are all poets) find the death of self, of time, even the death of a culture, a civilisation. Yet in the Chinese park or garden there is to be found a very different form of contemplation. If the classic Western appropriation of ruins features the loss of self, the loss of the ego, it nevertheless (almost in a clandestine way) works in favour of some sort of system of belief (usually the default religious system in operation in that culture at that time or perhaps just that of the particular viewer at that time). Together with its correlate: some kind of new self. Chastised and humbled by that which is before it. Or only apparently so (the ascetic fallacy): rather, buttressed by religion, the self looks down on the vanity of the past and exalts its own saved, and so superior status. A status reinforced by the brute fact of its own existence, by its mere presence as a viewer. In the contemplation of the garden landscape the Chinese find meditation; a lyric compared to the West's commemorative dirge when faced with a landscape, park, or garden with a ruin or folly (it is not a question of the response to ruins as such, rather the choice of culture to prefer ruins or temples and the similarity of the conservatism of their final function and meaning). Perhaps the Chinese experience of the garden even includes a moment of insight, as compared to the western desire for elegy, poetic analogue of mourning? Do we have an expression and remoulding of the internal that is more open (less morbid) in its refreshment of the self? Or are only the modalities, the mood and the cultural specificity different (the sacrificial nature of Christianity, its status as a religion of mourning, and as inheritor of the ruins of the classical paganism and its empire as prime contributor to its aesthetic genesis)? Does not the function remain the same; finally is it not the greater belief (whatever it might be) that is supported on the pillars of the temples, held up on the trunks of these trees? The sculpture of landscape and the view over the carefully-placed temple-like forms within it, like the sculptures that adorn palaces and places of worship the world over, represents, albeit in the gentlest of ways, the insistence of a world view, a view offered of order and of last things.


Water flows under a half-moon bridge; the apocalypse in the sky -reflected in waters below- shivers apart. A shoal of fish pass beneath, barely visible, vague darting forms leaving only a trail of ripples on the surface. Only sign of their passing.


Behind the reflection of the heavens. The ritual identifications of the appearance of contemplation: from the joy and ecstasy of the contemplation of spring blossom, of the cycle of rebirth as personal rebirth to the personal reflection on times, on one's identity as separate or separable from the realm of official discourse; the residue that escapes all regulation, even self-regulation. The contemplation of beauty as renewal. A rising tide which cleanses not only the ego, but suggests the cleansing of life, the purifying waters of which may well extend to the realm of the Temple and even to the State itself. Sitting alone, or surrounded by many others, within sight of reflective waters, green shoots or newly born flowers, witnessing the return of the blood-red cherry blossoms out of the silent black and grey of winter bark, who knows what thoughts pass through the mind of the still and silent contemplative as spring returns to the Chinese garden.


Pink and red; opening buds. Blushing, a river of white pearls runs down a branch. Blood wells up from the corpse of the old trunk.






Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk